By Tom Gill
“No es una crisis, es el sistema! (“It’s not a crisis, it’s the system”): this was the key message the indignados sent to their politicians as they returned in their tens of thousands to the centre of Madrid last weekend.
Hundreds had arrived after a month long journey on foot from 50 odd towns and cities in every part of Spain, from Andalucia in the south, Valencia in the east, Extremadura in the west and Galicia, the Basque Country and Catalonia in the north.
The “pilgrims”, from youngsters to pensioners, had brought with them stories they had heard on the way: of the everyday difficulties faced by Spaniards, from families evicted from their homes to men and women chucked out of their jobs. They also arrived bringing the support and understanding of an ever wider number of people about their movement of “angry ones” – and the hopes they had of creating a new social, economic and political order based on the needs of the people, not the banks.
Swelling the ranks in Puerto Del Sol were thousands who had arrived on buses from the far corners of the country. And there were also hundreds of visiting indignados, from Greece, Italy, France, Portugal and elsewhere.
It was a long weekend of music, poetry, speeches, protests, popular assemblies and debates. Above all, two months after they exploded into plazas across Spain and into our TV screens, it was a sign of the resilience of Spain’s most novel radical political experience since the Popular Front in the 1930s.
When the encampments in the capital’s central square were lifted after a month-long occupation and in the wake of a landslide victory for the right wing Popular Party in regional and municipal elections, many questioned what impact the May 15 movement (so called after the day it launched) would really have. And these questions persist.
The Socialist Government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero did not fall and remains unremitting in its attacks on welfare, public services and the living standards of the majority. Most recently it has raised the retirement age to 67 and by September changes will be brought in that will undermine national collective bargaining in favour of company level agreements and will remove protections against cuts in working hours.
Meanwhile, its main rival, Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party, is cooking up a “shock plan” of “tough” anti-deficit measures should it win general elections on November 20, as polls predict.
But neither party have the solution an economic crisis which unfolded when in 2007 a credit-fuelled housing boom, financed by Spanish and foreign banks, turned to bust, leading to a 22% unemployment rate (40% plus among the young), half a million bankrupt businesses (and growing) and public finances that are an alarming state.
Despite all the sacrifices imposed on ordinary Spaniards, and not-withstanding those imposed on the Greeks in the lastest rescue package, Europe’s fourth biggest economy remains in the front line of the euro zone’s sovereign debt disaster. The borrowing costs for Italy and Spain are heading north again. Spain’s sovereign-debt rating has just been put on “negative review” by Moody’s, a rating agency, meaning it could soon be downgraded.
Spaniards know that politicians in Madrid don’t have the solutions. Recent polling suggests there is a lack of confidence in the entire political class. But backing for the indignados, confirmed by polls and by an ever lengthening queue of high profile supporters – from Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, to veteran Communist leader Santiago Carrillo and filmmaker Pedro Almodovar – is as strong as ever.
Some point to what they see as signs that the politicians are responding, or at least that they want to be seen to be listening. In June, the Government passed new legislation that limits the amounts banks can reclaim from mortgage defaulters, and presented a much-delayed bill on freedom of information.
Zapatero’s annointed successor, former deputy PM and interior minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, has declared that under his leadership a Socialist Government would introduce a Robin Hood financial transactions tax and increase taxes on large corporations and the wealthy, as well as provide incentives for those who invest in Spain and Spanish jobs. (This move that has seen the socialists start to dent cut the big lead by People’s Party in opinion polls.)
The indignados – disillusioned Socialists, former communists, angry Popular Party supporters, but mostly people who have never engaged in politics or at least indentified with any of the political parties – are unimpressed. Instead, they are doggedly ploughing their own path towards a political programme that they believe goes to the heart of Spain’s deep seated problems.
The means are novel – intensive discussions in open working groups improvised in town centres and other public places, where anybody can get engaged in an diverse range of themes, including politics, economics, culture, environment and ethics. These locally developed proposals, reached by consensus, are then brought to national fora, such as the assembly in Madrid’s Retiro Park on Monday 25 July.
Among the proposals that are gaining wide consensus among the indignados are: converting the million unsold homes into a public housing stock for rent; a public bank to provide credit to struggling businesses and industries; an end to the ongoing privatization process of the Cajas, the publicly owned savings banks; an end to evictions; a clampdown on the reckless mortgage lending policies of the banks; a reversal of fiscal reforms of the past 10-15 years to make income taxes more progressive and to increase taxation on companies; and a ban on Spanish companies establishing subsidiaries in tax havens.
On Europe, they want an end to the downward spiral caused by austerity and privatisation policies and instead are calling for a plan for growth and jobs through an increase in public spending and a shorter working week. They see no merit in endless sacrifices to prop up Europe’s banks. The flaws in Europe’s socio-economic and political fabric are fundamental. And so nothing but fundamental changes will do, they say.
Over-riding all else, though, are the demands for radical reforms to the political system that would break the hold of the two, increasingly indistinguishable, main political parties that have dominated politics since the Transition to democracy in the late 1970s.
The May 15 movement’s analysis of, and proposed solutions to Spain’s problems are very close to the Communist-led United Left, the country’s third national political force. Frustratingly for leader Cayo Lara and his followers, United Left continues to languish at 4-6% in the polls, a historic low. And although United Left has sought to co-operate with and to lend support to the movement, for example, repeatedly bringing its demands before parliament, the indignados continue to make clear to them with the now trademark words for the whole political class, “You don’t represent us.” This is in part because of a long co-operation with the Socialists in local and at times, national government.
What remains the most spectacular achievement of the May 15 movement is its ability to repeatedly mobilise people in huge numbers, something only trade unions have historically been able to do. Between the start of the movement mid May and last weekend’s events, on June 19, between 200,000 and a million, depending on who you ask, took part in protests held in dozens of cities across Spain. On that day in Barcelona, health workers striking against wage freezes and cuts to hours combined with thousands of indignados under the slogan “Paremos Los Recortes” (Stop The Cuts). The target – a key vote in the regional parliament where the governing right-wing Catalan nationalist party CiU, aided by the Popular Party, has been particularly zealous in axing spending.
What has also distinguished the movement has been the use of (non-violent) direct action. As well as its now trademark occupations of central squares, and numerous spontaneous traffic-stopping protests, it has organised the prevention of 70 odd housing evictions across the country.
The next phase of mobilisation, already underway, is a march to Brussels, to take a radical message to the heart of Europe. Then a day of action in October. After the Spanish Spring, expect a hot Spanish Autumn.